Heading into the meat of conference play, NC State will just about exclusively be rolling with an 8-man rotation. It’s not quite as deep as anticipated coming into the season but everyone has clear-cut roles at this point, and for the most part, you know what you’re getting night in and night out from guys. Markell Johnson makes the offense go, scoring in double figures and creating great looks for others. Braxton Beverly and Pat Andree will be on the receiving end of those looks created by Johnson, and while streaky, will space the floor and hit their fair share. CJ Bryce is the steadying force who is quietly going to put up 15+ points and 5+ rebounds. That is if Manny Bates stops whacking him on the head during shootarounds. Lastly the combo of DJ Funderburk and Bates is going to give you efficient offense (Fundy) and game-changing defense (Bates), with enough on the opposite end of the floor to be respectable.
Where this team’s success could really lie though is with the play of Devon Daniels and Jericole Hellems. A year ago, Daniels was constantly and deservedly criticized for his out of control style and bad decision making. With him it wasn’t even about what you were going to get on a nightly basis, because you really didn’t even know what you were going to get from possession to possession. Hellems showed some flashes in nonconference but then hit a freshman wall once ACC play started and only scored in double figures once, that being in a blowout home win over Wake. His impact diminished as the season went on.
So far this season though, both have shown more consistency and maturity which has been evident in much improved numbers across the board. Daniels has played within himself and let the game come to him. He’s playing more minutes, but his percentage of the team’s shots taken has decreased. He’s settling for less threes (hitting at a higher clip of 37%) and attacking the basket more often. Which is ideal because he is the best driver on the team. Markell is great at getting in the paint as well, but Daniels has a unique ability to basically make one simple move and blow by just about anyone. It’s not that he couldn’t do that last season, but too many times it would end in a turnover or a wild shot, which was sometimes just as good as a turnover. Being under control when he drives has resulted in three things: a 2 pt shooting percentage of 55.7% up from about 46% last year, a much lower TO rate and higher FT rate where he is shooting a career best 76.7%.
It’s really been a lot of the same with Hellems. His minutes have doubled, but just like Daniels his overall usage on offense has decreased. And it’s not because he’s not as involved in the offense, but instead due to him simply playing smarter and not forcing things when there’s nothing there. He was often times a black hole last year but has shown he can be more selective. What has that turned in to? Same exact thing as Daniels. A noticeable bump in the 3pt shooting %, 2pt shooting %, FT rate and a decline in TO rate. He had been playing the best basketball of his young career before the nasty fall at Wake Forest. He was understandably brutal in the following two games, but thankfully has looked much better since.
Yes, Markell Johnson and CJ Bryce are the best overall players on the roster. Johnson is the straw that stirs the drink and Bryce is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, but again, you kind of know what you’re going to get from them and they’ve proven it for several years. Daniels and Hellems are more wild cards at this point who need to continue to prove that it hasn’t just been a flash in the pan during the first two months.
For this team to reach its ceiling I really feel like the continued development and consistency of those two will be the key. Just look at the losses against Memphis and Auburn. Daniels had his two lowest scoring outputs of the season, never really getting involved against the Tigers (Memphis) and battling foul trouble all night against the Tigers (Auburn). Hellems actually played very well against Memphis but looked absolutely lost against Auburn. Georgia Tech was left out on purpose because without two key players Keatts said the team is mentally treating it like a win, so I will follow coach and do the same.
If one or both falls back into bad habits it will really hinder the potential of the season, especially considering Keatts will mainly be playing 8 scholarship players with an occasional Danny Dixon sighting. The two of them are just so versatile and can have such an impact on the game. I’ve focused solely on their offensive improvement, but something that has remained constant is their ability on the defensive end. Both can guard just about anyone on the floor and are by far the best perimeter defenders. Hellems is long and moves well while Daniels ranks 73rd nationally in steal % averaging nearly 2 per game. Their versatility and effort on that end of the floor is huge for a team that has a couple weak spots defensively.
Keep an eye on them going forward, because as long as the team stays healthy, the continued consistent production from these two could be the difference in another NIT appearance or potentially being off the bubble entirely.